20 November 2012

Anne Glover on EU Science Policy

Today, I had the pleasure to meet Anne Glover, Chief Scientific Advisor to the European Union, in Berlin at an interesting science policy workshop organized by the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment. Like just about every science advisor to governments that I have met, she is an impressive individual. 

Here are a few comments that she made in oral testimony to Parliament in the UK a few weeks ago:
I started as CSA and was the first person to take up that post in the European Commission in January of this year. I will finish at the end of 2014; so I have three years. I will start off in a slightly light-hearted way. I would say that in the first week or two at the European Commission I set myself the target that at the end of two weeks I would understand how the Commission worked. I now realise that if I can understand part of it by the end of 2014 I’ll be very lucky. There is a lot involved in understanding procedure and how the Commission and Parliament works, and that, in itself, has an impact on what I hope to achieve.

The one single thing that I think would be very important to achieve is how people regard evidence and policy making. For me, that is absolutely central. I would like to develop that a little bit more. From my point of view, science has an obligation to generate the knowledge and the evidence that can be used in policy making. That should be the fundamental platform on which policy is built. That is just as appropriate for every member state as it is for the European Commission.

At the moment, although the policy making process in the European Commission is very robust-if I look at how it is structured, how evidence is gathered and how impact is assessed, it is very impressive-when it gets to the stage where individual member states look at it and Parliament addresses it, the evidence is often unpicked and bits of it are removed in order to find consensus around a particular policy. Although that is part of the democratic process and so I think and expect that that would happen, there is not a great deal of transparency around why the evidence is not being followed.

At the end of 2014 I would like there to be an understanding that, if the evidence is not adhered to in policy making, there would be a statement to say that we accept the evidence, that it is robust and that the evidence is true, but for various reasons we are reducing our reliance on evidence; and that could be social, economic, ethical or whatever. We need that transparency and also accountability so that, if people vote against something where clearly the evidence supports it, there should be a degree of accountability there, and then, for me, we would be in a much better place. At the moment, I think, sometimes evidence is disregarded in policy and, quite rightly, citizens would feel that there is something wrong with the evidence then, and that is not the case in many instances. For me, that is a very important thing.

The second thing would be to try and raise more awareness across Europe about just how impressive the knowledge is that we generate in Europe. In my mind it is really second to none. If you look at the impact of the knowledge that we generate, the infrastructures that we have and the things that we can do as a European Union that no individual member state or indeed any other nation outside Europe could deliver-I am thinking there of things such as the Large Hadron Collider at CERN or the European Fusion for Energy project, for example, with the European Space Agency-they are all examples of where Europe absolutely excels. I would feel that we were in a much better position if citizens understood that and also could appreciate that science is culture. It is not accessible enough and we don’t celebrate it enough. I would like every one of us to be less modest about our achievement in science, engineering and technology in Europe because it is one thing we can truly shout about, claim we are the best and actually be the best.
 My views on the strengths and limitations of any science advisor to governments can be found here.